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The small quayside of El Arenal is now in the centre of Bilbao, a city in the Basque region of northern Spain, but it was once used as a promenade and for unloading cargo from ships. The view is today dominated by buildings but Paret’s picturesque scene takes in the elegant walkway along the river Nervión and the panorama of mountains beyond. Wealthy citizens and dock workers alike go about their daily activities. To the right, fashionably dressed ladies enjoy a leisurely walk, while behind them a number of labourers shift goods.
Paret painted this work while in exile, following his banishment from Madrid in 1775. It belongs to a series of views depicting Spain’s northern ports, which were commissioned from Paret by the Prince of Asturias – son of King Charles III and the future Charles IV – in 1786. Six other paintings from the series survive; this one, dated 1784, is the same size as the View of Bermeo, painted on copper the previous year (Museo de Bellas Artes, Bilbao).
The small quayside of El Arenal is now in the centre of Bilbao, a city in the Basque region of northern Spain, but was once used as a promenade and for unloading cargo from ships. The view is today dominated by buildings but Paret’s picturesque scene takes in the elegant walkway along the river Nervión and the panorama of mountains beyond. The steep slopes of Mount Archanda (now known by its Basque name, Artxanda), the trees aligned along the waterfront and the sweeping curve of the river draw our eye towards the small town – Bilbao, as it then was – nestled in the valley. The building that appears at the point the river disappears is the convent of Saint Augustine, since demolished to make way for the present town hall.
Wealthy citizens and dock workers alike go about their daily activities. To the right, fashionably dressed ladies enjoy a leisurely walk accompanied by a young boy and his nursemaid; two small dogs jump playfully nearby. Behind this affluent group a number of labourers shift goods, while in the foreground other workers take a well-earned rest. A woman in a blue skirt stands out among them: she chats flirtatiously, holding up a dainty glass while balancing a piece of luggage on her head.
The artist’s refined painting technique can be appreciated in the careful brushstrokes, delicate colouring and subtle variations in light and shade that contribute to this painting’s luminous, hazy atmosphere. The picture reflects the prevailing influence of the French Rococo across Europe in the late eighteenth century; Paret was considered its leading advocate in Spain.
In 1775, Paret was banished from Madrid for his involvement in a scandal concerning his patron, Don Luis de Borbón, brother of King Charles III of Spain. First going to Puerto Rico, he then settled in Bilbao, and it was during his exile there that he painted a series of views depicting ports in northern Spain for the Prince of Asturias, King Charles III’s son and the future Charles IV. They were possibly commissioned with the aim of bringing Paret’s exile to an end. Six other views from the series are known to survive. These show the ports of Bermeo (Museo de Bellas Artes, Bilbao), Portugalete (Museo Cerralbo, Madrid), two views of Fuenterrabía (Museo de Bellas Artes, Bilbao; Musée des Beaux-Arts, Caen), San Sebastián and Pasajes (both Patrimonio Nacional, Madrid). The earliest work is that of Bermeo, which is painted on copper and is dated 1783. The series was completed in 1786 and once decorated the rooms of the so-called Casita del Príncipe (‘House of the Prince’) in the Escorial in Madrid, but was dispersed during the French invasion in the early nineteenth century.
Paret may have drawn inspiration from Claude-Joseph Vernet’s series of French port scenes commissioned by King Louis XV in 1752, which he may have known through engravings.
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